Stealing Cherries by Marina Rubin

Stealing Cherries by Marina Rubin
Manic D Press
Paperback, 93 pages
ISBN: 978-1-933149-80-6

I hope I can be forgiven for reading Marina Rubin’s collection of flash stories, Stealing Cherries, as somewhat autobiographical. The narrator at the center of each page of the book is a Ukranian émigré who first comes to the United States in the late 1980s and settles in Brooklyn, very much like the author herself. Upon reading these glimpses of immigrant life in the States and abroad, it was easy for me to understand why an author like Rubin would be tempted to draw from her own life. The conflict in exchanging one culture and nation for another, the rich variety of people and experiences that her family’s money and access afforded her, and the pinpoint choice of details that simultaneously captures the wealth and poverty that is infused in America combine into one of the richer contemporary visions of America I’ve read.

What I most appreciated about Stealing Cherries is that it reminded this California native about some of the other promises of the American Dream beyond working hard and making a lot of money. In the second story, the narrator’s family (after just arriving from Ellis Island) is visited by the Salvation Army with clothes, medicine, and sundry needs, all of which makes the narrator and her family uncomfortable since they have fur coats hanging in the closet and jewelry boxes of rubies and gold in the bedroom. They didn’t flee the Ukraine because they were poor, the narrator explains, they immigrated because they are Jewish and were suffering from systematic persecution. America then becomes a place of freedom, a land where we are not punished for being different or other, a place that welcomes diversity and variety. The stories helped me remember that this is a land of opportunity, not only for wealth, but to be one’s self.

The narrator embarks on a series of adventures through five distinct sections for the remainder of the book. Each story vivaciously captures moments of the narrator living freely and behaving quintessentially herself. Each section of stories shares a common theme, and while they are only numbered and not titled, the dominant theme of each quickly becomes apparent. The first section, which I would title “family,” deals with the young narrator negotiating her coming of age in America as well as being a globe trotter on various visits to family back in the Ukraine and areas around Europe. She also explores her Jewish heritage, examining the old world traditions her parents would like her to observe in contrast to the contemporary lifestyle of Jewish New Yorkers. In between such heavy and complicated experiences are the funny moments of trying to assimilate to American culture and language.

The other four sections, which I would title “travel,” “sex,” “friends,” and “work,” reveal various ways of maintaining this precarious balance between serious weight and humorous levity. My favorite example of this balancing achievement is the story “Gypsy Cab,” in which a little old woman who is living on a meager pension and needs hip replacement surgery flags down a young man in a black Mercedes to give her a ride home for two hundred rubles. She was hoping for a young student or someone with a family to support with a decent job, but she takes the ride when the driver agrees to the price. Come to find, the young man thought he had picked up a street walker, and the little old woman is indignant, cursing and hitting him with her bag, shaming him with her being old enough to be his mother. The story ends with the young man’s grin and the quip that she’s more his grandmother’s age. The story is a well told joke, one that both parties within the story can one day laugh about and enjoy themselves, but it’s also contextualized in desperate poverty. A footnote at the bottom of the one page story informs us that two hundred rubles is equivalent to seven dollars American.

The title of the book comes from a story almost smack-dab in the middle, “Confessions of Love.” The narrator tells of her time in a town called Vinnitsa (pronounced in Russian almost like Venice) and a young man named Ruslan who lives there. From her newly American perspective she compares him to Brad Pitt and John Wayne, but she also lets some other native details slip in like his becoming the man of the house in the absence of a father, and that makes him cool. The narrator sees that he is adored and lusted after by her, her girlfriends, and everyone else in town, so she’s surprised when he calls out to her from atop a tree, stealing cherries, and proclaims his love for her. There’s a combination of innocence and transgression in the act of stealing cherries, a youthful abandon paired with guileless freedom. The narrator herself identifies this way, her experiences making her more knowing than other girls her age, but then she embarks on the same enjoyments and endeavors, really embracing her life and all it has to unfold to her. The stolen cherry tastes very sweet, but there is something lost in the transaction, a sense of peace or safety that can’t be reclaimed. The flash stories are a veritable bushel of stolen cherries, each one is a delight to read, sweet and best enjoyed in bunches. A slight bitterness follows, we’re too old to enjoy stolen cherries, too grownup to snatch virgin fruit and eat it with unconscious abandon, but the memory of the taste, and the echoes within these stories are still delightful to carry within us afterwards.